For decades, there’s been a lack of visibility of diverse body types in media focused on the outdoors. A new initiative from Seattle’s REI could help.
Mirna Valerio has run 11 ultramarathons and 10 marathons. She began running at 13 and now, at 42, has graced the covers of magazines like Runner’s World, Women’s Running and Ultra. She’s a veritable badass and nobody can tell her different. Except they have.
Since founding her blog “Fat Girl Running” in 2012, she’s received negative, sometimes downright hateful comments, most of them aimed at her appearance. For decades, there’s been a lack of visibility of diverse body types in media focused on the outdoors, and people like Valerio are changing that — but not without significant challenges.
Last week, Valerio spoke before a group of women who understand these problems, as well as clothing-brand representatives who have the power to do something about at least one of them. At the “Less Labels, More Sizes” Trunk Show, held at REI’s Seattle flagship store, the company invited women to have a conversation about how REI can better serve them.
Last year, REI launched the Force of Nature initiative to focus on women in the outdoors community. Based on the feedback the company received, it became clear that REI was not doing an adequate job of providing active wear and gear for women who wear larger sizes.
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“Some of those voices came out and said that we weren’t doing a great job and that we had some room for improvement and that we were not representative of some of the groups of women … that are in the outdoors and having an incredible time,” said Tessa Bondi, the local Puget Sound market coordinator and lead experience coordinator for the “Less Labels, More Sizes” event.
The Seattle event is one of six across the country in coming weeks. Jenny Bruso, founder of the Unlikely Hikers blog and Instagram account, will speak at an event on Thursday in Dallas, Texas. The trunk shows represent an effort to obtain more focused feedback when it comes to improving service to women who purchase plus sizes.
“We are here, I can’t stress this enough, to listen tonight,” Bondi told the audience as the event began Friday. “I also want to encourage you all to be honest and open tonight and know that this is a safe space.”
Bondi then gave the floor over to Valerio, after listing off the ultra-runner’s extensive accomplishments to applause and cheers. After a brief reading from her book, “A Beautiful Work in Progress,” Valerio told stories about running and her mother, who was inspired to work out by the “crazy stuff” Valerio has done.
“They see me on a magazine cover, or they see you walking out of your house in your workout clothes and running or walking and not giving a s—. It’s really important, because people are watching,” Valerio said, affirming that her audience’s presence in the outdoors is important.
The message seemed to land. In the breakout sessions that followed, participants were vocal and assertive.
“My impression is that you don’t want me as a customer for clothes,” said one of the women in the focus group to discuss shirts. “It’s boring to walk through a store with nothing that fits you.”
“Have it look good. And have it flatter our body types,” said another woman. She gestured to her neighbor. “We have hourglass body types! They don’t make hourglass in plus sizes,” she said, almost incredulously.
“If you don’t offer it in the store, you should ship it to me for free,” one woman asserted. An REI representative nodded and told her it was a good suggestion, while a note-taker jotted it down.
For REI’s senior category merchandise manager Trina Fornerette, serving this audience is a personal passion, and she’s been working to overcome some of the challenges.
“Getting brands to come on board with this was a little bit of a challenge for a couple of reasons,” said Fornerette. “A part of it is … years past when we tried it, it wasn’t the most productive, so we didn’t get the return on the investment, because it costs a lot of money to make larger clothing. So what we said is that, really, it’s not about making the most money at this point, it’s really about servicing a group of consumers that aren’t being serviced in the outdoor community.”
Fornerette has worked with brands like Columbia, KUHL and REI’s house line to expand the availability of plus sizes in REI stores. Despite the higher cost of producing plus-size clothing, she has managed to persuade brands to offer plus-sized products at the same prices as products in straight sizes. She’s not sure how the other brands are making up the difference, but says REI is basically eating the cost. “With the understanding that the reward is gonna be much greater, just being able to serve these customers,” she said.
Fornerette insists that REI’s effort to better serve women who wear plus sizes is an integrated project that will include figuring out how to best present products online and in stores.
“It’s not just about offering product and hoping that the customer finds it,” she said. “It is really about making the visual experience in-store easy for her to find.”
Fornerette discussed plans to include plus-size models on the REI website, and — eventually — plus-size mannequins in stores, so that a shopper who wears plus sizes “feels like she’s looking at someone that’s just like her.”
REI’s offering of plus-sized products are easy to find online, at rei.com/plus.
Julie Linn, an engineer who attended the event, had conversations with REI representatives before last week’s event. When I asked how the free jacket provided to each “Less Labels, More Sizes” participant fit, she shrugged and said she’s used to Columbia jackets not fitting correctly. But she seemed hopeful that the feedback from women at these events will have an impact.
“Women have a lot of buying power,” she said. “I just want women to feel empowered. When you feel comfortable in your clothes, you’re just so much more empowered.”